‘Winter Is Coming’ or ‘Valar Morghulis?’
Was Robert Baratheon, first of his name, titles, titles, titles … the greatest warrior king since Aegon the Conqueror or a slave to lust and sloth like Aegon IV the Unworthy?
Is the thesis of Game of Thrones “Winter is Coming,” or “Valar Morghulis?” Is Game of Thrones a fantasy epic musing on the inevitability of the seasons or is it House of Cards set in Westeros, a Machiavellian ruse in Khalessi cosplay?
This is a conversation you may have had over the past few years.
There’s dragons and ice zombies. There’s a secret prince with a special sword. There’s an evil queen jealous of all the young pretty queens. It’s Ice vs. Fire. Ipso facto, Game of Thrones is a fantasy show.
No, this is a political show. This is an HBO show. Chaos is a ladder. Corrupt institutions! Anyone could die … at any time! This is about power, and sex, all at once!
Game of Thrones is obviously more complex than those simplification. It’s a show about the bonds/weight of family ties and shared history. It’s five coming of age tales at once (Jon, Dany, Bran, Sansa, Arya). It’s a self-referential show, not like Community, but in the sense these characters are always dealing with history — of the Westeros and all the cultural ticks and norms that come with.
(The best example of this were the episodes bracketing the Red Wedding, as a bunch of characters tell stories about how “you know, it’s really not cool to break guest right. Like, that’ll curse you for all eternity, man.”)
But one of the richer elements of Game of Thrones has always been this meta-discussion. Fantasy vs. politics, genre vs. prestige storytelling competing for the mic. Whose story is this?
(Of meta-discussions, Blade Runner is probably my favorite. Harrison Ford’s Decker and his flat droning narration competing against. Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty and his mystical, tear in the rain speech)
But hey, when it comes to Game of Thrones, they let you self-identify. You can get a “Winter is Coming” poster or a “Valar Morghulis” tee . Do you like apples or oranges? Lord of the Rings and cool swords with cool names doing cool things or House of Cards and saucy declarations on “power.” Living in both worlds and allowing both perspectives to joust up and down the lists for seven years was part of this show’s genius.
But there has to be a winner, right? Game of Thrones must be either a fantasy epic with a nice nihilistic cloak and doublet, clean lines and all, or a true golden age work of television (power, difficult men, etc.) but in cosplay for the kids.
I’ve usually find myself in the camp of … well, at some point the dragons are going to fight the ice zombies, right? Dany and Jon are gonna team up and Azor Ahai the Night King back to the Land of Always Winter once and for all. It’s Fire & Ice people. My take has been … in order for Game of Thrones to fulfil its true potential as the one show to save us all and in our communion bind us, it had to layoff the Valar Morghulis for a minute and embrace the fantasy side. That’s how I read Jon’s resurrection, at least.
I’m pretty sure I’ve been wrong. Not like, Catelyn releasing Tyrion and Jamie Lannister and Ned trusting Littlefinger wrong. More wrong like, Bran thinking it’s cooler to be a knight than it is to be a wizard.
What I mean is … Jon comes back to life twice. First, as we’ve all gif’ed, naked on a slab, and the second in “The Battle of the Bastards,” when he nearly suffocates under a heap of corpses before rising up with the same GASP as before. The first instance, that’s some pure Narnia shit. The second, that’s straight from the hard-boiled realism of “Valar Morghulis.”
That these two dueling perspectives work in tandem is not a revolutionary idea, I know, but it’s an important distinction as we near the endgame — that this isn’t all of a sudden going to become a fantasy story. Littlefinger and Cersei will be scheming til the White Walkers arrive at their gates. The fate of Westeros is in the hands of characters like Jon, Dany, and Bran, who through their experience can reckon with both ends of the story.
Meta-discussions are usually interesting (to me!) but rarely have teeth. They’re rarely as essential to the endgame. One of the coolest macro stylings of Game of Thrones, though, is that its central characters will decide their world’s fate by reckoning with the same conundrum we’ve been discussing for years. Am I in a fantasy or political story? Will Dany, Arya, and Sansa realize “Winter Is Coming?”